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Cherokee entertains idea of bear sanctuary

Tribal Council for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has postponed any action that would ban bear zoos from the reservation for good.

A few tribal members called on Tribal Council last week to revoke the business licenses for any private establishments that display caged animals for profit on the reservation and force those establishments to release the animals.

It was the latest twist in a four-year controversy over bear zoos in Cherokee that have evoked the wrath of animal rights activists for the deplorable conditions the bears are kept in, including an undercover video sting by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. One bear zoo, Chief Saunooke Bear Park, racked up so many federal warnings and violations that federal inspectors last month fined it and suspended its license to display bears to the public until corrections were made. There are two other sites on the reservation that display caged bears.

“It hurts me. It shames me that I drove by those places day-by-day,” said Amy Walker, a 71-year-old enrolled member who brought concerns to Tribal Council last week.

“We of all people should be able to relate to the suffering,” the resolution stated.

At Chief Saunooke, 11 bears are kept in concrete pits.

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“There is no soil. There’s no trees. There’s no grub,” said tribal member Janice Anders. “They need our protection.”

If shut down, however, it begs the question: where would the bears go and what would happen to them?

At the same meeting, a resolution was put forth to create a wildlife sanctuary and animal rehabilitation center, which could house the bears. A tribal member hoping to operate the sanctuary has asked to lease property from the tribe to house it.

Tribal Council Member Diamond Brown said he supports the idea of a sanctuary for the bears since the animals could never survive on their own.

“We can’t turn these bears out to the wild,” Brown said, adding that he would like to see a large enclosure with lots of room and plant life. “Wouldn’t it be nice if you had an acre for each?”

Principal Chief Michell Hicks wrote a letter to Tribal Council in support of an animal refuge and stricter standards for the bear zoos.

“We need to create a more animal friendly environment for these animals,” Hicks said in the letter.

However, just three years ago, Hicks spoke out in support for the bear zoos and said he did not think the condition of the zoos was inhumane as PETA repeatedly stated.

The animal activists organization has protested in Cherokee before and recently released a video from inside Chief Saunooke Bear Park showing workers making derogatory comments about Native Americans and bears gnawing on metal bars until their teeth snapped.

Because of that video, Walker introduced the resolution asking that the bear zoos be shut down. One enrolled member said the tribe would not even be considering such measures if the video was not released.

“You all would not be doing this if that undercover video did not come out,” said Missy Crowe, an enrolled member. “This is not the first time PETA came to Cherokee.”

Last Thursday’s council meeting was the first time an enrolled member had formally decried the bear zoos and asked Tribal Council to take action. While Hicks recommended that any caged animals remain where they are until the tribe figured out what to do with them, Walker said she wanted the tribe to remove the animals from the bear zoos immediately.

“I think those animals need to be taken care of now,” Walker said.

Walker and other supporters have already contacted places in Tennessee and North Carolina that would be willing to take bears from the three parks.

“We don’t need to give anybody any more time to think about anything other than release them,” said enrolled member Peggy Hill-Kerbow.

After some discussion, both resolutions were tabled until the council could hold a work session to review its current policies regarding caged animals.

The only restrictions specifically for legally obtained, caged bears require owners to flush the animals’ cages once a day with water and once every two months with disinfectant; the bears should receive adequate food, may not be restrained with collars, chains or stakes, and should be held in an iron- or steel-barred cage that is at least eight feet by 12 feet by six feet. The maximum fine for violating the standards is $5,000.

Hill-Kerbow called Cherokee’s standards very minimal.

“We should have stellar standards,” Hill-Kerbow said.

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